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August 2003     Vol. 4, no. 8

Who pays for domestic help?

Boris Palameta

Canadians have become increasingly 'time poor.' Time allocated by families to paid work has increased, leaving less time for unpaid work such as necessary household chores. Time pressures are especially onerous for women, largely because men's share of unpaid housework has not increased at the same rate as women's share of paid work. For example, in 1993, in most dual-earner families with both spouses working full time, the wife was solely or largely responsible for daily housework such as meal preparation, meal clean-up, cleaning, and laundry (Marshall 1993). The most recent available time-use data showed a similar pattern (Chart A).

One way to relieve time pressure is to purchase home services such as domestic help. Households are often assumed to base their spending decisions on the combined income of all members—the income-pooling hypothesis. This model predicts that each additional dollar of a man's income should be spent the same way as each additional dollar of a woman's income. Yet several studies have shown that they are spent differently. In American dual-earner households, wives' wages were significant predictors of spending on home services while husbands' wages were not (Soberon-Ferrer and Dardis 1991). In a test of the income-pooling hypothesis for 14 different expenditure categories, expenditures falling within the traditional realm of 'woman's work,' such as child care and household food, were more influenced by the wife's than by the husband's income (Phipps and Burton 1998).

This article looks at expenditures on home services in 2000, the most recent year for which microdata are available (see Data source and definitions). It focuses on husband-wife households, for which issues related to division of unpaid labour are likely to be important. Characteristics of households that did and did not purchase home services are compared. Because women may gain more time by purchasing home services, women's share of household income may be especially important. Also, the need for time pressure relief may make dual-earner households more likely purchasers of home services than single-earner or no-earner households. Other factors considered include household composition, size of dwelling, and presence of a secondary residence such as a vacation home. Households with more members (especially very young or very old) may be more likely to pay for home services, especially if they have more rooms to clean or more than one residence.

High-income households more likely to pay for home services

A little more than 1 in 10 husband-wife households purchased home services in 2000, spending an average of $1,100. Purchasing households had a much higher median income than non-purchasing households (Table). Other distinguishing features of purchasing households included an older wife, a larger dwelling (where size was defined by the number of rooms), and a wife with a larger share of household income. Purchasing households were also more likely to have dual-earner spouses, a senior other than the husband or wife in the home, or a vacation home.

However, some of the variables may be interrelated. Examining each one individually without taking the others into account may lead to misleading conclusions. To make informative statements about how any one variable is associated with the decision to purchase home services, the other variables must be held constant. This is done by using a technique called logistic regression (see Data source and definitions).

Wife's share of household income is important, dual-earner status is not

To illustrate the influence of different variables on the purchasing decision, a reference household with a specific set of characteristics was selected. Each characteristic was then changed while holding the others constant (Chart B).

As hypothesized, the wife's share of household income is an important factor in the decision to purchase home services. If the wife's share of income is set at 75% instead of 25% with all other factors held constant, the likelihood of purchasing home services doubles.

Furthermore, households with a relatively small income, most of it the wife's, are sometimes more likely to pay for home services than households with a larger income, most of it the husband's (Chart C). For example, purchases are more likely if the wife makes 100% of a $20,000 household income than if she makes less than 57% of a $60,000 household income, or less than 15% of a $100,000 household income.

Another important factor in the purchasing decision is the wife's age. Households in which the wife was aged 30 to 59 are almost twice as likely to purchase home services as households with a wife under 30. Those in which the wife was 60 or over are four times as likely. Perhaps older women are less willing or able to do housework. And in younger households, husbands may be more likely to help with household chores, thus reducing the need for home services.

Although the number of children in a household does not affect the decision to purchase services, the presence of at least one child under 5 increases the likelihood. This result is not surprising, since households with young children usually have more to clean up, and less time to do it.

Another significant variable is the number of rooms in the dwelling. When everything else is held constant, the probability of purchasing home services increases with the number of rooms to be cleaned.

Surprisingly, dual-earner households are no more likely than male-earner households to purchase home services, once other factors such as household income are held constant. The presence of seniors in the household and owning a vacation home are also not found to be significant.


Buying domestic help is not just a matter of having sufficient household income. It also matters whose income it is. Consider two husband-wife households, identical in every respect except that the husband makes 75% of the income in one household while the wife makes 75% in the other. The analysis presented here predicts that the second household will be roughly twice as likely to pay for home services.

The likelihood of purchasing home services also increases with the wife's age. Everything else being equal, women 60 and over are almost four times as likely to pay for domestic help as women under 30.

Although dual-earner status is not associated with an increased likelihood of purchasing home services, other time-related factors such as young children and a large dwelling are. Home services can be thought of as an item purchased largely at the wife's discretion if household tasks are especially time-consuming and household income is sufficient. Put more simply, domestic help seems to be a means by which husbands and wives—but especially wives—can buy time.


Data source and definitions

The Survey of Household Spending (SHS), conducted annually since 1997, collects data on expenditures of private households. The household member mainly responsible for financial maintenance acts as the reference person. This study was restricted to husband-wife households surveyed in 2000.

In the SHS, home services are defined as "domestic help, e.g., housekeepers, cleaners, paid companions and house-sitters." Child-care services and outdoor services such as gardening and snow removal are excluded.

Wife's share of household income is her total income before taxes divided by the total household income before taxes. The following conventions were applied in order to prevent the wife's share of household income from being less than 0% or more than 100%. Her share was set at 0% if both the household income and her income were zero or less, or if the household income was positive but her income was negative. The share was set at 100% if her income was positive but the household income was negative, or if the household income was positive, but her income was higher than the household income.

Dual-earner households are those in which both spouses work at least part time. In the SHS, part-time workers are those whose total weeks worked in a year do not exceed 48, or those who worked 49 or more weeks but less than 25 full time.

Logistic regression estimates the probability that a particular outcome—in this study purchasing home services—will occur as a function of several explanatory variables. The association between each explanatory variable and the probability of purchase is examined while holding all other variables constant. In other words, the probability of purchase can be compared between households that are identical in every respect but one. For instance, a comparison can be made between dual-earner households that have the same income, same number of children, etc., but differ in terms of the wife's share of household income. An F-statistic is computed for each explanatory variable to determine whether a change in that variable is associated with a significant change in the probability of purchase when all other variables are held constant.

To account for the complex survey design, the analysis was conducted using WesVar version 4.2. Replicate weights were created using the jack-knife method. Interaction effects between household income, wife's share of income, and wife's age were found to be non-significant and were dropped from the analysis. Only main effects are shown.


  • Marshall, Katherine. 1993. "Employed parents and the division of housework." Perspectives on Labour and Income (Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 75-001-XPE) 5, no. 3 (Autumn): 23-30.
  • Phipps, Shelley and Peter Burton. 1998. "What's mine is yours? The influence of male and female incomes on patterns of household expenditure." Economica 65, no. 260 (November): 599-613.
  • Soberon-Ferrer, Horacio and Rachel Dardis. 1991. "Determinants of household expenditures for services." Journal of Consumer Research 17, no. 4 (March): 385-397.


Boris Palameta is with the Income Statistics Division. He can be reached at (613) 951-2124 or

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